Mar 24, 2020 - Health

American manufacturing vs. the coronavirus

People holding up a surgical mask in the age of coronavirus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America's new goalpost: Build tens of thousands of ventilators and assemble and reuse billions of face masks in the next few weeks to ward off some of the worst-case scenarios from the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: We need to give medical professionals, first responders and essential personnel (like grocery store staff) every possible tool to treat the ill and avoid getting sick.

The first wave of need is right now: New York has 7,000 ventilators and needs 30,000 — and America's essential personnel need an estimated 3.5 billion N95 masks.

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pleading with the Trump administration for help. He is asking it to either use the Defense Production Act for ventilator production or to tap the federal stockpile to provide 20,000 machines. VP Mike Pence said today that 4,000 more are on the way.
  • Cuomo says he needs the ventilator stockpile during the next few weeks, then promises he'll pass them to other parts of the country as their own outbreaks peak.

The second wave is coming fast: As outbreaks grow in other states, manufacturers will be needed to dramatically expand the national capacity.

Face masks and protective gear:

  • Honeywell is hiring 500 additional workers and gearing up to produce more respirators, but the company says it’ll take up to 30 days to set up an additional manufacturing plant.
  • 3M says it has doubled its N95 manufacturing output, producing 35 million a month in the U.S. Around 90% of those masks are going to hospital employees.
  • Ford will start producing 100,000 plastic face shields per week — the company expects 75,000 to be finished by the end of this week — and is investigating how to 3D print disposable respirators.
  • 3M is working with Ford to pump out powered air-purifying respirators.
  • The FDA is easing rules for importing needed products, including personal protective equipment like N95s, into the U.S.
  • Tens of millions of additional N95 masks targeted for construction uses can now be sold to hospitals, thanks to new legislation signed last week.
  • Apple has donated 9 million N95 masks, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday.
  • Many hospitals are starting to disinfect and reuse respirator masks with UV light machines while they wait for backlogged supply.


  • GE Healthcare has added shifts and hired workers to build ventilators around the clock at its manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. Since the outbreak began, GE Healthcare has doubled its capacity for ventilator production and has plans to double it again by the end of Q2 2020.
    • Ford and GE Healthcare are collaborating on a simplified version of GE Healthcare’s existing ventilator designed specifically to support COVID-19 patients with respiratory failure or difficulty breathing. Ford is looking to build these simpler ventilators at its own factory, but no date has been given.
  • GM is helping Ventec Life Systems to ramp up ventilator production, with a goal to produce 200,000 machines at Ventec's facility in suburban Seattle, and potentially at a GM electronics plant in Indiana.
  • The FDA has relaxed some regulations to allow these modifications, a critical step.
  • Yes, but: Ventilators need to be used in properly equipped, sanitized units, and many rural areas simply don’t have those types of rooms. They also require skilled personnel to keep them running and patients alive.

The bottom line: President Trump says he hopes the country can start returning to normal by Easter.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify that Gov. Cuomo wants federal help with ventilators, not respirators.

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